January 10, 2016 will be remembered as a momentous day in Disneyland history, not only because it saw the permanent closure of Big Thunder Ranch, but because it marked the end of Frontierland’s Rivers of America in its current form. This scenic area of the original Magic Kingdom all all its attractions, whose designs date back to Walt’s day, will be out of service until April 2, 2017, at the earliest. When the Rivers of America reopen, it will have been downsized to accommodate the arrival of Star Wars Land, with the water rerouted along a shorter circuit. The next few years will be an exciting time of expansion at the Disneyland Resort, but before we blast into the future it’s appropriate to pay tribute to the past. If you you couldn’t make it out in person before the long reconstruction begins, relieve the Rivers of America closing day with these exclusive videos.
S.S. Columbia and Mark Twain Riverboat Closing Sailings
On the final day before the Rivers of America closing and lengthy refurbishment, I tried three times to board one of the big boats that ply the waters, and was turned away each time because of capacity crowds. That should give you an idea how popular these normally sleepy attractions were with fans saying farewell. I never did get aboard the Columbia that day, though I did capture photos of its final crew coming into port.
The Mark Twain was an equally hot ticket, and I had no hope of being on the last sailing at 5:45 p.m., but I did get a last lap at “magic hour” from the front of the top deck, which you can enjoy vicariously through this full ride through POV in 4K 2160p video:
We know for a certainty that the Mark Twain will return to service when the Rivers of America reopen, if the new concept art released by Disney is realized. When it does, the route it takes will be a bit different, as the river is expected to run through what is currently the northern half of Tom Sawyer Island, where the off-limits Fort Wilderness currently stands. Many of the animatronic animals and Native Americans that currently line the shore will need to be removed or relocated, and an impressive new array of mountains and waterfalls is set to be installed.
The biggest question is how much shorter the new revised river cruise will be, and if the abbreviated run will still be long enough to allow both the Mark Twain riverboat and the Columbia sailing ship to operate simultaneously. Previously, the round trip was just long enough to allow the slow-loading Columbia to complete its docking cycle before the Mark Twain caught up with it. A significantly shorter voyage will require much quicker loading of the Columbia (or much slower movement of the Mark Twain) to operate efficiently.
Davey Crockett Explorer Canoes Last Paddle
Disney has publicly stated (through their @DisneylandToday Twitter account) that the Davey Crockett Explorer Canoes will return when the river reopens, but cast member at the attraction were acting like January 10th was their last day ever. The canoes are conspicuously absent from the above concept art, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Disneyland will continue this low-capacity, labor-intensive attraction for another generation, if only so city kids can still learn what a sore shoulder from paddling feels like.
Just in case, I lined up for the canoes’ 11 a.m. opening time on the Rivers of America closing day, and found a few dozen diehards already camped out ahead of me. Later, the canoe queue grew even longer, exceeding what we usually see on days of extreme park attendance.
It was wonderful to have one more brisk morning row on the river — and with the temperature under 50F, it was certainly brisk — but I must admit being annoyed by my crew-mates who insisted on filming the entire trip instead of padding, no matter how many times our cast member captain told them to stop…
I may not have filmed my final canoe ride, but I captured something even better. Here are the Davey Crockett Explorer Canoes cast members racing their boats back to storage at the end of the day for the last time, at least for the next 15 months:
Pirates Lair on Tom Sawyer Island Downsizing
Tom Sawyer Island, whose original outline was hand-drawn by Walt Disney himself, has gone through many evolutions over the years, most notably for the installation of Fantasmic’s show infrastructure, and again for the Pirates Lair overlay. But the next year will see the island’s most drastic changes ever, as a portion of its northern end will be lopped off to accommodate the river’s new path.
To be perfectly honest, most of the area to be affected is occupied by Fort Wilderness which won’t be a big loss, since it has has already been off limits to guests for years. It’s officially unknown exactly how much accessible real estate will be reclaimed, nor how Fantasmic (which used the Fort as a staging area) will be impacted when it reopens. For now, I took one last scramble around Sawyer’s island to photographically preserve its former form.
I personally prefer the cave complexes on Walt Disney World’s Tom Sawyer Island, but Dead Man’s Grotto in Disneyland does have some nifty special effects. Thanks to my new iPhone 6S+, I was finally able to record some halfway decent POV video of this dark walkthrough attraction:
Fantasmic on Hiatus
Of all the attractions that closed on January 10th for Star Wars Land construction, Fantasmic may prove to have the biggest operational impact on the park. The nightly pageant would pack in thousands of guests for each performance; those people will likely now be waiting in attraction lines, or swelling the already dense Main Street crowds for the parade and fireworks.
What, if any, changes will be made to Fantasmic show remains an open question, hopefully to be answered before its anticipated 2017 reopening. In the meantime, remember the show with this 4K video from Fantamic’s closing weekend of my favorite scene, the Peter Pan vs. Captain Hook pirate ship battle aboard the S.S. Columbia:
Disneyland Railroad Rerouting
Last but not least, the Disneyland Railroad also ran for the final time on January 10th, before it’s current route is permanently altered. An opening-day attraction, the railroad has seen many revisions over the years, including the addition of the Priveval World dioramas from the 1964 World’s Fair, and the tunnel through Splash Mountain. But this rebuild will be the most ambitious yet, will an elevated trestle running along a more southerly route past (and through) a brand new mountain range.
The Disneyland Railroad’s temporary closure brought out many locomotive fans, leading cast members to tape out lines for the unusual extended queue.
For my final ride on the current rails, I took a twilight Grand Circle Tour from Main Street U.S.A., and broadcast it on Periscope. Here’s a low-res archive if you missed the live stream on Rivers of America closing night:
Keep an eye on the Touring Plans blog over the next year and beyond, and we’ll keep you posted on the rebuilding of Rivers of America, along with the arrival of Star Wars Land at Disneyland.